Bach: Complete works for organ

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Complete works for organ
PERFORMER: Wolfgang Rübsam (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: 456 080-2
JS Bach’s obituarists (his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and JF Agricola) praised him for the strength of his polyphonic writing and the secrets of his harmonic invention. His serious temperament, they recollected, led to his preference for music which was serious, elaborate and profound, but suitably enlivened when the occasion demanded. All properties which have undoubtedly been at the root of much artistic soul-searching by many organists as they embark on the recording of the complete organ works, and qualities which we, as listeners, must in turn try to gauge in what is a far from easy task.

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An enormous cross-section of one man’s compositional life is contained in these works, which, as Bach scholar Malcolm Boyd deftly summarises in his introductory essay to the performances here reviewed, explored many genres and stylistically developed through a conjoining of German tradition and Italian innovation. Recorded in 1977 (now spread over 16 discs), Wolfgang Rübsam’s performances (on two neo-classical instruments, the Metzler at Frauenfeld, and the Marcussen at Freiburg) obviously do not take into account more recent Bach attributions, but they do include a convincing realisation of The Art of Fugue, whose ingenious fabrics naturally advocate a performance on the organ. The abstraction of these late fugues combined with the ‘modernity’ of the instrument chosen to perform them (Frauenfeld) provides this collection with one of its highlights.

Rübsam is always able to offer a competent performance, and strives hard to vary his approach to moods, textures and forms. There is some sensitive appreciation of the chorales and their texts (eg the Orgelbüchlein, the Leipzig Chorales) and in many such liturgical pieces a sensible choice of tempo, though sometimes the will to be melodically expressive (particularly in instrumental figuration) can make obbligato lines seem slightly erratic and unsettling. Some inventive and tasteful choices of registration (in the chorales particularly) are a pleasure to hear, but at times the preference for prominent, high-pitched combinations for solo lines can become overwhelming for the articulate and often under-registered pedal lines (eg the Allegro movements of the Trio Sonatas). The performer is never scared of virtuosity, but although it makes for good effect in places, the breathtaking speeds can misfire. Fugal textures do occasionally lose speed with gathering complexity, and the tempi in the faster movements of the concerto transcriptions, although capturing some of the energy of the original string writing, can seem far too fast and misconceived; the opening movement of the A minor Concerto (BWV 593), for example, is unrelentingly harsh, and the weighty registration of the G major’s last movement (BWV 592) is wholly inappropriate for the chosen speed.

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Rübsam’s cycle does provide a useful encyclopaedic presentation of Bach’s works for organ, and, although recorded only twenty years ago, now offers an interesting glimpse of the performance practice and aesthetic concerns of the time. The performances of the free works – works which imaginatively marry tradition with innovation, and form with improvisatory rhetoric – perhaps best show the age of this collection, with their vivid colourings and inexorable drive. Andrew McCrea